2,640 tons of bombs were dropped on Dresden during the first wave, two thirds of which were incendiary bombs. A firestorm erupted in an area eight miles square reaching temperatures of 1,500 degrees centigrade engulfing the narrow, medieval streets. Ninety per cent of buildings within the city centre were destroyed, including over twenty hospitals. Smoke rose up to 15,000 feet.
With only minimal anti-aircraft guns, few German troops, and limited war-related industry, Dresden was still deemed a legitimate target – for Arthur ‘Bomber’ Harris’s intention was not so much military but ‘moral bombing’, to demoralise the civilian population and thereby shorten the war (despite evidence during the Blitz that instead of demoralising civilians, bombing only hardened resolve). The strategic objective of bombing Dresden and other cities in eastern Germany was, as agreed at the Anglo-American Yalta Conference, to help alleviate the pressures on Soviet forces advancing into Germany on the Eastern Front.
The Allied commanders studied aerial photographs of German cities and specifically targeted areas of heavy residential populations. His aim, said Harris, was to make the ‘rubble bounce’ not just in Dresden but in every German city.
The Allies knew that a bomb shelter or a cellar would only provide protection for about three hours before becoming unbearably hot and so forcing the civilians back outside. Thus a second wave of bombs was dropped precisely three hours after the first batch – again to maximise the number of casualties. Many bombs were adapted so that they would explode hours after falling – the idea to cause maximum casualties against civilians who were trying to remove the devices. Air bombs were dropped with the intention of blowing off roof tiles, allowing incendiary bombs to fall unimpeded into the interior of buildings, and to blow out windows to allow greater ventilation to stoke the flames.
People died from the lack of oxygen as the firestorm (German: Feuersturm) sucked the air out of the atmosphere. One witness described seeing people suddenly falling dead as if shot but, as she found later, they were dropping dead from the lack of oxygen. Many unfortunates jumped into a huge water tank hoping to escape the suffocating heat, only to find the water inside was boiling.
Although initially enthusiastic about the bombing raids, Churchill tried to distance himself and, following Dresden, questioned Harris’s methods of ‘bombing German cities simply for the sake of increasing the terror … The destruction of Dresden remains a serious query against the conduct of Allied bombing … I feel the need for more precise concentration upon military objectives.’ Bomber Harris (also known as "Butcher" Harris within the RAF) responded angrily that the attacks had been necessary in order to hasten the German surrender and diminish further allied casualties.